Hemphill, William Despard (1816–1902), medical doctor and pioneering photographer, was born 4 August 1816, fourth of six sons of Samuel Hemphill, medical doctor, of Springhill, Killenaule, Co. Tipperary, and his wife Mary, daughter of Robert Backas, Butlerstown Castle, Co. Waterford. He received his medical education in TCD (University of Dublin), became a fellow of the RCSI, and settled in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary.
In the 1850s he became interested in photography as a pleasant antidote to the pressures of his profession and took his first photographs, possibly as early as 1853. He was probably self-taught but may have communicated with and learned from other photographers – such as Francis Edmond Currey, an estate manager on the duke of Devonshire's estate at Lismore, Co. Waterford; Thomas Woods, a medical doctor from Birr, who in 1845 had corresponded about photography with William Henry Fox Talbot; Robert Staples, a landed gentleman from Durrow, Queen's Co. (Laois); and Lady Hawarden of Dundrum, Co. Tipperary.
In 1860 Hemphill published a book, Stereoscopic illustrations of Clonmel and the surrounding country including abbeys, castles and scenery with descriptive letterpress. It contains eighty-one pairs of stereoscopic photographs and a frontispiece of Hemphill beside his camera at the Rock of Cashel. Generally, the subject matter of the stereo pairs is antiquarian, taken, for example, at Cashel, Holycross, Lismore, Ardfinnan, Cahir, and Clonmel. A small number of stereos was taken of scenery, county seats, and castellated residences. Hemphill recommended that the stereo pairs be viewed through an open-ended stereoscope laid on the page of the book. He took the photographs in the summers of 1857 and 1858 and used the wet-plate collodion process. He dedicated his book to Mrs Catherine Isabella Osborne (qv), Newtown Anner, Clonmel, who was interested in art and recognised the value of photography. Incidentally, in 1870 she edited a two-volume work on her mother, Lady Catherine Rebecca Osborne, and in a foreword expressed her gratitude to Hemphill for the use of his photographs.
Hemphill intended that Stereoscopic illustrations of Clonmel would be a guide to the tourist who had an interest in antiquarian buildings and artefacts. While he had personally examined each photographed site and read the works of the best contemporary Irish antiquarian authorities, he did not profess to offer original archaeological information; he made it clear that his volume was chiefly pictorial in content.
In the early 1860s Hemphill joined the Amateur Photographic Association(APA), founded in Britain in 1861. It was an association in which photographers could participate in annual photographic competitions, and both photographers and associate members could exchange and purchase photographs. A number of Irish people joined the association: Sir John Coghill (qv), Capt. Robert Henry of the 4th Dragoon Guards, Mary, countess of Rosse, Lord Drogheda, Lord Carew, Lord Bantry, the Hon Dudley Fitzgerald de Ros, the Hon. Lewis Wingfield (qv), Augusta Crofton, Thomas Marcus Brownrigg (qv), Robert Staples, Francis Edmond Currey, and others. Hemphill and Currey were presented with certificates of honourable mention in 1863 for the large number of members and associates who had joined the association through their efforts. Hemphill exhibited in the APA throughout the 1860s and was a prize-winner from 1863 to 1867. In 1864 he had six photographs accepted in the highest class and was awarded a prize for his ‘Drawing room at Newtown Anner’. The following year he was awarded a silver goblet for his photograph, 10 in. x 8 in. (25.4 cm x 20.3 cm) in size, ‘Kilmanahan Castle’. In the Dublin International Exhibition (1865) he had twenty photographs accepted and was awarded a medal for his skill in photographic printing and for his artistic choice of subjects. In 1867 he was awarded a prize in the APA for a photograph entitled ‘White currants, the prize of prizes’, and in the same year he had acceptances in the Paris Universal Exhibition. His surviving albums and collections show that his photographs fall into the following categories: antiquarian, scenery, fine art, plants and gardens, family, and posed tableaux.
Hemphill seems to have become less active in photography at the end of the 1860s but he returned to it again in the 1890s, specialising in plant photography, both outdoors and in greenhouses. This was not entirely a new interest, as in the 1850s and 1860s he had made donations of plants and seeds to the herbarium at the botanic gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin. In this revival phase (in about 1897, for example) he took photographs at Glasnevin of Addison's yew walk and the pond in the gardens looking eastwards. In 1897 his photograph of Addison's yew walk was published in John Lowe, The yew-trees of Great Britain and Ireland. He died at Clonmel on 13 July 1902.